"You know, you're the type of manager the rest of us hate."
I've never forgotten those words.
I was only 23, but was working in my dream job: my first management position at a New York nonprofit I loved.
But I was young and stupid, and much more focused on short-term numbers than I was on people. So when a direct report made a critical mistake, I reamed him out. He responded with the line above.
I stood there, speechless.
I learned a painful lesson that day. I wanted to be a positive influence on my colleagues, the type of manager they would respect.
So I asked myself: How do you give critical feedback in a way that others view as helpful, instead of harmful?
Over the years, I've pondered that question time and again. I've learned from my mistakes, and by observing those who were older and wiser.
In the process, I learned that critical feedback requires the following:
You have to praise first
Not in the "feedback sandwich" way. You know, that insincere: Let me tell you something good just so I can tell you something you need to work on.
People won't care what you have to tell them unless they first sense that you care about them.
So, pay attention. Pay attention to the good things others are doing. Focus on their strengths, not their weaknesses. See their potential.
Then tell them what you see. Give them sincere, specific commendation; Keep it real, and tell them what you appreciate about them and why.
If you get in the habit of giving positive reinforcement to your people, they'll be all ears when you point out areas for improvement, too.
Give your people a chance to speak
If you need to give critical feedback, it pays to let the other person speak first. This gives them a degree of control, so that you're having a conversation, instead of just speaking to them (or worse, at them).
So, how do you start? Ask them questions like the following:
- How do you feel about (how things are going at work, your presentation, this situation, etc.)?
- What are your biggest challenges right now?
- How can I help?
These questions disarm your communication partner, giving them permission to be vulnerable.
At the same time, you learn how to see things through their eyes. That information will help you contribute to solving problems, instead of adding to them.
Admit your own failures
Everyone hates a "know-it-all." But we love "learn-it-alls"--those who can admit they don't know everything and the lessons they've learned.
When you share a struggle you've had in the past, or a blind spot someone pointed out to you, along with how they helped you improve, you put yourself on the same level as your communication partner. Then, ask if you can pay it forward, by sharing something that you think can help.
By seeing that you're willing to make yourself just as vulnerable as them, they'll be willing to learn from your experience.
Thank the other person
It's not easy to take constructive feedback--even if you deliver it well. So thank the person for being open to listening and improving.
Of course, you shouldn't view these steps as a one-size-fits-all template or formula. It's just a start, to help you on your way.
But whatever you do, remind yourself to focus on making feedback constructive, instead of critical.
I learned a lot about the power of giving great feedback from my old boss Marc. Some people say your boss should never be your friend, but Marc blew that theory out of the water.
Doing just that--becoming a friend--made Marc great as a manager. He focused on the positive. He coached and helped. So when it came time to tell me something that I needed to improve, I had no problem taking it--because I knew Marc cared.
Marc made such an impact on me that I still keep in touch with him, 20 years later.
And if he gave me something to work on today, I'd take it to heart.
That's the power of emotionally intelligent feedback: It makes everyone better.